"Wise Use" in the White House Yesterday's fringe, today's Cabinet official. by David Helvarg
Fifteen years ago the anti-environmental "wise use" movement made a splash with its talk of timber wars, threats to shoot "jackbooted" park rangers and resource
managers, and attacks on grassroots environmental activists. You don't hear much about wise use anymore, but that's not because the wise-users went away.
Far from it. Just as neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle long pushed their hawkish agenda from the sidelines before becoming key officials,
veterans of once-discredited militant anti-environmental groups are now setting natural-resource policy for the Bush administration.
Wise use arose in 1988, combining property-rights activists with elements of the timber, mining, oil, and off-road-vehicle industries and a smattering of Reagan
administration leftovers. Its original focus was the perceived threat that George H. W. Bush would follow through on his pledge to be "the environmental president."
Wise-use activists went on to confront the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and local environmental activists, sometimes with vigilante-style tactics ranging from
telephone death-threats to arson and shootings. In Washington, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico, a number of wise-users even united with the militia movement.
That alliance proved their undoing: Following the deadly 1995 attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by militia associates Timothy McVeigh and
Terry Nichols, wise use lost much of its industry backing and went into decline.
Today wise-use veterans and their lawyers and lobbyists are back, working for the son of the president they once detested. Among prominent appointees in the
administration with wise-use backgrounds is Interior Department secretary Gale Norton, who began her career at the Mountain States Legal Foundation back when
it billed itself as the "litigation arm of Wise Use."
Mountain States was the brainchild of Reagan's notoriously anti-environmental Interior secretary James Watt. (After
being forced to resign, Watt told a group of ranchers that "if the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the
cartridge box should be used.")
Department of Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman also has roots in the movement. As a lawyer in California, Veneman represented wise-use activists opposed to a
federal conservation plan for the Sierra Nevada. Her chief of staff, Dale Moore, is a former lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a stalwart
member of the wise-use coalition, while her undersecretary for natural resources, Mark Rey, was a timber lobbyist and featured speaker at wise-use events through
the late 1990s.
Back in its heyday, the movement put forth a 25-point "Wise Use Agenda," which at the time was dismissed as right-wing fantasy. It included a call to drill for oil in
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to log Alaska's Tongass National Forest, to gut the Endangered Species Act, and to open up public lands to motorized
recreation. These and other wise-use bullet points now frame Bush administration environmental policy.
Drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge has been a constant
preoccupation, and the Tongass was opened to wide-scale logging last December. The Endangered Species Act has been continuously undercut. Secretary Norton
reversed a plan to ban snowmobiles from several national parks, instead increasing their numbers. She also directed the Bureau of Land Management to find ways to
expedite coal, oil, and gas development on 250 million acres of public lands.
The Wise Use Agenda also called for privatizing the national parks and handing them
over to people "with expertise in people-moving such as Walt Disney." Norton has promoted "outsourcing" thousands of National Park Service jobs to the private
sector to provide "better delivery of services to the public."
"I wish we could take credit for that, but we can't," demurs wise use's founding ideologue Ron Arnold of the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise. "Dick Cheney
sits on my board of directors, but we're not pen pals. Sometimes you just put something out there long enough and it gets picked up, despite what you do."
One victory wise use will take credit for goes back to the early days of the Bush administration, when it appeared the White House might appoint John Turner as
Interior secretary. Turner had been head of the Fish and Wildlife Service under the elder Bush, and was a fishing buddy of Dick Cheney's.
But he was also president
of the Conservation Fund, a "non-membership, non-advocacy" land preservation organization, so wise use considered him a "land-grabber" aligned with "the
Rockefeller Family Foundation and their financing of the environmental left," according to Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association. Cushman
(known to his admirers as "Rent-a-Riot") organized an anti-Turner campaign; the angry protest spooked the Bush White House, and Turner's name was replaced by
"They caved, they blinked," says wise-use founder Arnold. "Cheney's probably angry at us, but who cares? Norton is a friend."
This spring, wise use again stepped in to block the Senate from ratifying the Law of the Seas treaty, an innocuous framework agreement for ocean management and
marine protection. With broad support from the Navy, oil companies, the White House, and environmentalists, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had voted
19—0 to take the agreement to a final vote.
Then wise-use veteran Henry Lamb, former head of the so-called Environmental Conservation Organization (a group
founded by developers opposed to wetlands protection) got involved. His new group, Sovereignty International, claimed that the Law of the Seas treaty was a plot
to undermine the United States by establishing a "blue hull" United Nations navy (from which presumably to launch the black helicopters of militia-movement
Lamb's group got Senator James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma to call a hearing regarding "national security concerns" over the treaty, leading Senate Majority
Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to put off the vote until after the presidential elections so as not to alienate Bush's supporters on the far right.
While traditional wise-use paranoia still proves effective, its rhetoric is softening. Where once leaders like Arnold railed against environmentalists ("We're out to kill
the f––s. We're simply trying to eliminate them. Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all"), today's wise-use veterans like Interior secretary Norton
take a softer tone.
"We have in many ways reached the limits of what we can do through government regulation," she blandly asserts. Now that they occupy the seat
of power, the wise-use movement no longer needs its blowhards and bullies as it quietly and effectively implements its radical agenda.
David Helvarg is author of The War Against the Greens (revised and updated 2004, Johnson Books) and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign.